Charlie Parker Jazz Festival

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Charlie Parker Jazz Festival

Date Observed: A weekend in late August
Location: New York, New York

T he annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival celebrates the legendary music master and impresario for whom it is named. Two New York City public parks are opened up on two consecutive days at the end of August so that citizens and visitors can appreciate the genius that is credited with changing the face of modern jazz.

Historical Background

Charlie Parker's brief life, from 1920 to 1955, had a gigantic impact on the American music scene and the jazz world in particular. As an African American born to modest circumstances in the Midwest, he achieved his successes in what might be viewed as somewhat unconventional ways. Parker left an impressive legacy, despite more than a few stumbling blocks and hurdles.

His early childhood and teenage years were spent in Kansas City, Missouri, where there are varied stories of a largely absent father whose background was in the black vaudeville circuit. Parker's mother was of African-American and Choctaw descent (the source of much theorizing with regard to Cherokee and Ko-Ko, two of Parker's significant works). Her work hours are said to have allowed young Parker's free reign of the "Paris of the Plains," as Kansas City was then called. His introduction to vice came early; his dual addictions to heroin and alcohol were established by the time he was 15. That was also the year he married his first wife. Three others followed, and when he passed away, Parker had fathered at least three children.

The little formal music education that Parker received was obtained via the Kansas City public schools. His first instrument was a baritone horn, of which he quickly tired. Parker then moved on to what would become his passion, the alto sax. He played in a high school group for a brief time before dropping out in 1935 to pursue music full time. Before long, and with the involvement of two hawked instruments, Parker made his way to New York City. He stayed there a year, working a stint as a dishwasher in order to be near musicians he admired. It was during this time that Parker began to formulate his sound, although it would be years before he would actualize it musically. In the meantime, he honed his basic music abilities and worked towards his creative goals, playing first with the Jay McShann Band and then Earl Hines's group, teaming up with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and other young modernists. These "hep cats" spent off hours in jam sessions in such renowned Harlem hotspots of the day as Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House.

By the mid-1940s, Parker's career was ready to take off. He was grounded in the fundamentals and knew the sound he was after. He and Gillespie set out and did a string of Hollywood engagements. Parker then went to Los Angeles on his own where a reported effort to kick his drug habit landed him in Camarillo State Hospital for six months. Afterward, he worked in Los Angeles for three months, then returned to New York to form a quintet with whom he recorded some of his most famous works.

For Parker, though, this productive period had its ups and downs; ultimately, his lifestyle choices took their toll. In mid-1951, New York's Narcotics Squad curtailed his ability to earn a living locally by having his cabaret license revoked. Constantly forced to be on the road - or broke and begging - Parker's mental and physical health increasingly suffered. Although he did get his license back within two years or so, Parker tried to commit suicide twice in 1954; he voluntarily committed himself to Bellevue Hospital.

Parker made his final public appearance on March 5, 1955. His death was announced on March 12, 1955.

No one argues Parker's technical mastery of the saxophone or his influence. While some question his character, and others still are challenged by the complexity of his compositions, the very longevity of Parker's work has given credence to his stature and the stamina of his place in the halls of music. Much recognition of the jazz legend occurred posthumously during the last decade of the 20th century. In 1994 efforts to have Parker's one-time New York home on Avenue B placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places came to fruition. At the end of the decade, the building also was granted New York City landmark status. Easier to achieve was the renaming of Avenue B as "Charlie Parker Place" in 1993. In Kansas City, Missouri, the Charlie Parker Memorial Statue was dedicated in 1999.

Creation of the Festival

The first Charlie Parker Jazz Festival was held in 1993. The original organizers ran the event until its 10th year, at which time the City Park Foundation took over and has managed it since. The month of August was selected to honor Parker's birthday.


The festival is held over the course of two days, Saturday and Sunday, at two different venues, both in areas where Parker lived and worked: Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Tompkins Square Plaza in the East Village, near Parker's home on what was then Avenue B. The events start at midday, allowing attendees the chance to spend an afternoon, or two, inspired by Parker's intricate compositions and twists on old standards.

Each year the festival brings together some of the most talented jazz musicians from all corners of the globe. The aim is to exemplify the individuality and innovation that Parker himself intensely idealized. Admission on both dates is free of charge. The event is one to which jazz aficionados eagerly look forward, considering Parker's works to be as provocative today as they were more than a half century ago.


Several accounts purport to explain how Charlie Parker got the nickname "Yardbird," often shortened to "Bird." One popular story, recounted on the official Charlie Parker web site, has it that while Parker was traveling to a gig with Jay McShann, the car hit a chicken - also known as a yardbird - and Parker insisted on stopping the car and retrieving it to cook for dinner.

Contacts and Web Sites

City Park Foundation 830 Fifth Ave. New York, NY 10021 212-360-2756

Official Site of Charlie Yardbird Parker CMG Worldwide 10500 Crosspoint Blvd. Indianapolis, IN 46256 317-570-5000; fax: 317-570-5500

Further Reading

"Charlie Parker Memorial Issue." Down Beat, March 11, 1965. Hodeir, Andre, and Jean-Louis Pautrot, eds. Andre Hodeir Jazz Reader. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006. Priestly, Brian. Chasin' the Bird: Life & Legend of Charlie Parker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns. Jazz: A History of America's Music. New York: Knopf, 2002.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Parker (Charlie) Jazz Festival

Last weekend in August
The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival is a free event sponsored by the City Parks Foundation in New York City. Held annually since 1993, the event comprises two concerts held over a weekend in late August to commemorate Parker's birthday, August 29, 1920. Known to jazz followers as "Yardbird" or more simply "Bird," Parker was one of the most innovative and influential jazz saxophonists of the 20th century. His works are particularly noted for their complexity and virtuoso improvisation, which continue to attract critical admiration more than 50 years after his death in 1955.
The festival concerts take place at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, neighborhoods in which Parker lived and worked. About 7,000 people attended the festival's 15th anniversary performances in 2007, which featured such artists as vocalist Abbey Lincoln, drummer Chico Hamilton, pianist Marc Cary, and trumpeter Maurice Brown.
City Parks Foundation
Charlie Parker Jazz Festival
830 Fifth Ave., Room 280
New York, NY 10021
AAH-2007, p. 93
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
During his band's performance at the 2012 Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, the energy percolated to the point that Haynes grabbed the microphone and began to sing the O'Jays chorus "Money, money money mooo-ney." When he asked for some ladies to step up, six women of different generations rushed onstage to dance with him.
* Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. Tompkins Square Park.